A Feature Review of
Naming Neoliberalism: Exposing the Spirit of Our Age
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
I have always been drawn to the apocalyptic. Growing up, I devoured anything in the realm of apocalyptic fiction, whether in the form of novels (The Stand by Stephen King), comic books, (X-Men: Age of Apocalypse) or television (the tragically short-lived Jericho). Something about the existential dread conjured up by pondering the end of human civilization has always been compelling to me. Later in life, upon encountering an entire stream of Pauline interpretation labeled “apocalyptic,” I found myself once again deeply drawn to it, despite the comparative lack of zombies and nuclear disaster.
As readers of The Englewood Review of Books are likely to know, the term “apocalypse” in ancient and biblical literature refers to “revealing.” Though I could not have articulated it as a young person, it is indeed this sense of “revealing,” or “revelation,” that drew me to the types of fiction referenced above; for apocalyptic fiction can help us confront realities we would rather hide from in the mundanity of our day-to-day lives, like the fragility of our economic and justice systems, or how it does not take much to inflame humanity’s tribal and divisive instincts to destructive levels. The promise of seeing what was previously hidden is powerfully compelling, and apocalyptic theology considers the Christ-event to be an ultimate revealing, an ultimate apocalypse, of the “mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:9). A revelation of this scope and magnitude would indeed hold the power to change the world.
It is directly in this vein that Rodney Clapp seeks to uproot and expose the “spirit of our age” in his new book Naming Neoliberalism. A historically- and theologically-seasoned work of social and cultural criticism, Naming Neoliberalism contends that “Neoliberalism” is itself an all-consuming ideology that lurks under the surface, behind the entirety of our ways of understanding the world (what Charles Taylor might term our “social imaginary”). As Christians who occupy various social locations in this culture, it is vital that we see this prevailing “spirit,” name its evils, and be freed from its grasp on our epistemology, moral reasoning, and ethics.
At times with a take-no-prisoners style, Clapp ruthlessly critiques cultural forces like atomized individualism, self-interest, economic scarcity, and universalized contractualism and competition, locating their current, specific manifestation as being sourced in Neoliberalism. On the influence of the so-called “Free Market,” for example, “We face a belligerent bottom line that invades all aspects or spheres of our existence” (102). “The market qua market exhibits moral idiocy . . . cigarettes are stocked adjacent to smoking-cessation aids . . . fertility pills are down the aisle from contraceptives” (108). However, while many similar works of cultural criticism are predominantly deconstructive, the task of identifying and defining Neoliberalism itself only occupies the first two chapters of the book, after which Clapp turns to the much more constructive task of proposing alternate visions to the constraining ones into which Neoliberalism currently has us locked. This forward-looking commitment– what Clapp repeatedly calls “freedom for” as opposed to merely “freedom from”– injects a compelling style to a project that could otherwise have lapsed into bleak cynicism.
These alternate ethics to which Clapp is calling the reader are alliteratively labeled “Covenant” (against contractualism and market forces), “Catholicity” (against nationalism) and “Creation” (against exploitation of nature). Each topical exploration unveils specific ways in which the prevailing spirit of Neoliberalism seeks to shape our desires and priorities against distinctively Christian ethics and imagination. Clapp deftly provides nuanced argumentation here, without compromising the passion and clarity that characterizes his writing. For example, in discussing nationalism, “On this same, earthly, worldly stage, both the church and the nation-state perform. They are not always at odds, but they are distinct from each other and have different ends or goals. The nation-state is inherently parochial. The church’s catholicity embraces and roots itself throughout the whole world” (143). In calling Christians towards a deeper freedom for solidarity with brothers and sisters throughout the world, as opposed to a limited loyalty to the state in which they happen to find themselves, this particular vision succeeds powerfully.
Unfortunately, Clapp’s generally-excellent chapter on “Covenant” is marred by an unnecessary detour into putting forward a theological affirmation of same-sex marriage union. This short excursus did not materially advance the broader argument of the chapter, namely that the very nature of Christian covenantal union pushes against the “contractualism” that is rampant in our culture, and especially given the highly-charged and deeply-contested nature of the topic same-sex union; it was a confusing choice to include. On the other hand, Clapp’s rousing call to repudiate self-interested contractualism in the marriage arrangement is persuasive and winsome. “Whereas covenantal marriage aims at a union of selves, contractualism aims only at a union of interests . . . By contrast, the covenantal economy of the church’s oikos shapes us not as free-floating entrepreneurs of the self but as whole-orbed persons who live in long-term relationships with God and one another.” (102-103) To this I only add a hearty “Amen!”
In drawing together ethics, sociology, cultural commentary, historiography, and the best of apocalyptic Pauline theology, Clapp has synthesized a remarkable amount of reading and influences and produced a clarion call for the American church to more clearly name and understand the invisible forces that shape our collective vision of the telos of humanity, and especially the powerful role the church can play in calling others to this vision. Like the strongest, and even the most troubling, “apocalyptic” stories I enjoyed growing up, Naming Neoliberalism reveals deep forces at work in our world. And what is seen cannot be easily “unseen.” To those who have ears to hear, and eyes to read, let them listen.